The sector comes together to discuss Africa’s sanitation challenges: reflections on FSM 5 and AfricaSan

This blog reflects on the FSM 5 / AfricaSan conference in Cape Town, some of the main topics of conversation and how they relate to the Foundation’s work and strategic priorities.

Categories: Blog, Water to the Home

April 15, 2019

Upon recently joining The Stone Family Foundation and stepping back into the WASH sector after a few years working elsewhere, one of my first opportunities was to attend the joint sanitation conference FSM 5 and AfricaSan in Cape Town, South Africa.

The conference brought together professionals from across the sanitation landscape – from service providers and enterprises to Government representatives, global businesses, NGOs, academia and funders.

Given the recent report released by AMCOW revealing Africa is off-track to reach 2030 targets, and more effort is needed, the joint conference served as a convening point to discuss ideas, collaborations and cross-sector learning at a time when an acceleration in progress and renewed focus is essential.

A few key themes stood out from sessions across the three days.

The sanitation economy and opportunity of waste to resource

The opportunity presented by the sanitation economy and market-based solutions, with both business and societal benefit, came across strongly. Within this, waste to resource as an area offering great potential for the valorisation of human and organic waste into useful by-products seemed to be generating a substantial amount of interest.

The Safi Sana treatment plant in Ghana for example converts waste into important local resources such as energy and fertiliser. Critical to this model is the power purchase agreement (PPA) Safi Sana has with the electricity utility – the first of its kind in Ghana – which offers a greener and more sustainable source of energy for communities.

The plant sources faecal waste from vacuum trucks, and organic waste from factories and businesses in the local area, providing a mechanism for the safe collection, transport and treatment of solid and faecal waste. This has clear environmental and social impact, while at the same time the sale of added value products (electricity, compost, seedlings) is a real opportunity for the enterprise to become operationally and financially sustainable.

Treating waste in this way isn’t necessarily new – it’s been tried for many years in different places, and there remain key challenges to overcome. Every market is different, there isn’t a one size fits all business model for success. And in every context, questions need to be asked that help steer the business: what waste is available? How much is there? What by-products are most valued and who are the end clients? What is a realistic finance structure for these enterprises as access to finance seems to be a major barrier?

That waste to resource businesses could offer lower capex and opex costs than mainstream alternatives, such as poorly designed, expensive wastewater treatment plants, also still needs to be proven.

This is an area of great interest for us as waste to resource is a key strategic priority this year. We are keen to explore these questions with the organisations we work with in 2019.

Technology as an enabler

Technology in WASH was a prevalent theme. Its presence ranged from examples of impressive hardware with innovative mechanisms for containing and treating waste, to how certain technologies have been applied to business models and adopted by enterprises to strengthen their services.  

This is a pattern we’ve seen across the enterprises we work with – technology is never a silver bullet but it can significantly help address internal operational inefficiencies if utilised smartly and integrated well into operations and day to day activity. 

One notable example was presented by GSMA. The partnership between mobile technology experts GSMA and CBS businesses such as Loowatt and Sanergy demonstrate the added value technology can bring when it is applied strategically and to suit business needs.

From our experience many CBS businesses experience high costs associated with the transportation of waste and collecting customer payments. Support from the Mobile for Development programme helped integrate mobile payment solutions and technology has been used to optimise transport routes. This has in turn created cost efficiencies for the businesses and collected data that can be used for targeted action and improvements.

In clearly defined partnerships with each actor playing a specific role, and where technology can enhance a solution, there are substantial benefits.

Public-private sector partnerships for non-sewered sanitation

The continued need for effective alternatives to sewered sanitation, and the role of public—private partnerships (PPPs), was addressed in several presentations.  

In a session on performance-based contracts for pit emptying in Maharashtra, India, it was noted that the Indian Government’s National Plan has created a positive market for private sector involvement. The policy has encouraged contracts with private operators – but each actor needs a role with defined responsibilities and incentives.

The contract length and value are important considerations to attract the private sector, and private sector reports on performance help Government demonstrate they are meeting their mandate. It’s clear that addressing these areas up front when setting up PPPs supports long-term stakeholder engagement and success of the project.

Another important factor contributing to the effectiveness of PPPs is each partner playing to their strengths. The example of the Sengalese Government’s involvement of the private sector by recruiting Delvic Sanitation Initiatives (DSI), a Sengalese business specialising in on-site sanitation, to improve the operations of their faecal sludge treatment plants, speaks to this.

Appointing DSI has helped make the plants more operationally and financially sustainable due to the business expertise they bring, and engagement from Government has generated a favourable operating environment and commitment to scale. Each has a complementary role. We are interested in taking this to the next stage and building the business plan by supporting DSI to develop sales and marketing strategies for the new products produced: water, energy, and ash – strengthening their PPP model.

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